Coach Cliff Urquhart was looking forward to Monday’s first day of practice for the Southern Aroostook Community School girls basketball team.
It was to include only conditioning and skills drills among small groups of players, in accordance with COVID-19 guidelines established by the Maine Principals’ Association and various state agencies.
Monday was the starting date for school teams to begin the limited workouts, but formal, full-team practices were postponed from Dec. 14 to Jan. 4, 2021, due to the surge of COVID-19 cases.
If the guidelines aren’t altered again in the meantime, games will be allowed starting Jan. 11.
While there was activity inside the gym in Dyer Brook on Monday, the situation varies widely across the state. Some schools have pushed their starting date back and districts such as Bangor are waiting to make a decision on the season. Some are prevented from holding any sports gatherings because of a “yellow” county designation by the state and others are on hold while doing remote learning amid rising coronavirus case counts.
Regional School Unit 24, which includes Sumner Memorial High School in East Sullivan, has already decided not to conduct winter sports.
Lee Academy has pushed back the start of its winter sports season until Dec. 21, which is when the Old Town-Orono High School cooperative hockey team plans to hold its first conditioning/skills workout.
Lewiston High School athletic director Jason Fuller and Skowhegan AD Jon Christopher are keeping their fingers crossed that their respective counties, Androsocoggin and Somerset, will return to “green” status and begin practices.
The Maine Department of Education has designated those counties, along with York and Oxford, as yellow, which means extracurricular activities are not permitted.
Christopher said if Somerset County on Friday is upgraded from yellow, where it has been since Oct. 30, Skowhegan will be prepared to hold activities that afternoon.
“We’re hoping for the best,” he said.
Athletes have been limited to meeting virtually with their coaches and working out on their own.
“It has been difficult. It has been hard emotionally on everybody,” Fuller said.
Bangor won’t decide until Wednesday night whether to move forward with a winter season.
Bangor High athletic administrator Steve Vanidestine is part of a committee that includes Bangor High principal Paul Butler and several coaches and community members that has put together a proposal on how they intend to safely conduct their winter sports.
Vanidestine said interim Superintendent of Schools Kathy Harris-Smedberg has approved the plan, which on Wednesday night will be considered by the Bangor School Committee.
Randy Harris, the athletic director and boys basketball coach at Lee Academy, said his school on Monday went from in-person classes to remote learning, due to the COVID-19 surge in Penobscot County.
“If you don’t feel safe having kids in the classroom, you certainly can’t have them practicing,” Harris said.
He anticipates other school districts will cancel their winter seasons outright, which will have a domino effect on scheduling.
Under MPA rules, teams will be allowed to play up to 12 games between Jan. 11 and Feb. 27. Teams that start later could have weeks where they play three games.
Brewer High coach Lance Ingerson said high school hockey teams will only be allowed three hours of ice time for practices per week to start the season.
Old Town-Orono coach Chris Thurlow said the MPA’s rationale for the three-hour limit was to maintain competitive fairness among the teams.
Ingerson said his focus will be on skill development and giving the players the opportunity to adapt to the new MPA guidelines.
“It’s going to take a while for our kids to adjust to wearing a mask all the time,” he said.
Urquhart said educating his players on the MPA guidelines is going to be a substantial undertaking as will their adjustment to wearing face masks. He remains upbeat about the season.
“I see this is an opportunity, not a limitation,” Urquhart said.
He plans to implement small groups of athletes at each end of the court, conforming to the health and safety mandates. He is confident those sessions will be productive leading up to the first official practice.
Urquhart said the players will have a lot more time to work on their shooting than they would during a normal preseason.
Even though teams will have only one week of full-squad practices leading up to opening night, those that have been able to do the skills sessions and conditioning will be in a similar place in terms of preparation.
Harris said teams would be better off to have two full weeks of practice before playing the first game.
Urquhart said the early season basketball play may not be as polished as usual with limited practice time, but stressed that the athletes won’t mind because they just want to play.